Democratic debate: How the Paris attacks may change US presidential race

On the eve of a Democratic debate, the Paris attacks now make the threat of ISIS a key issue for candidates – and its one that American voters tend to see Republicans as being more qualified to handle. 

(AP Photo/Jim Cole)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks during a campaign stop at the VFW Post in Derry, N.H. on Nov. 10, 2015. CBS hosts a Democratic presidential debate Saturday night at 9 p.m. Eastern time.

Republican presidential candidates called for deeper military engagement in the Middle East as Democrats prepared to face renewed questions over national security in the wake of Friday's terrorist attacks in Paris, which claimed at least 128 lives and injured more than 200.

The French tragedy instantly shifted the focus of the 2016 presidential race, one that has, so far, often been defined more by character and quirks than global experience. But the threat of ISIS is now a key issue for candidates – and its one that American voters tend to see Republicans as being more qualified to handle. 

CBS announced that its Democratic presidential debate, scheduled for 9 p.m. Eastern Time Saturday, would focus primarily on national security, raising the political stakes for candidates Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley, all of whom have resisted calling for US troops on the ground in Syria. (Last month, President Obama ordered some 50 special forces soldiers to the region to fight ISIS.)

“Last night's attacks are a tragic example of the kind of challenges American presidents face in today's world and we intend to ask the candidates how they would confront the evolving threat of terrorism," CBS News Washington bureau chief Chris Isham said.

Critically, the deadly incursion by Islamic militants into a Western capital gives new urgency to America’s role as a leading coalition member in Syria, where the West is trying to contain the spread of ISIS through diplomacy and coordinated air strikes. It’s an effort deeply complicated by the involvement of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who ordered his country’s own separate air strikes against rebel and ISIS targets in October. ISIS claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, saying it came in retaliation of Western air strikes against ISIS targets in Syria.

The attacks in France prompted Republican candidates to call for a stronger focus on the threat from Syria. That threat, said Ben Carson, is partly about immigration, given reports that at least one of the Paris attackers was among the thousands of male refugees from Syria who have flooded into Europe during the four-year civil war.

“Tough times can be clarifying,” writes John Avlon, editor in chief of the Daily Beast. “They raise the stakes and impose a sense of perspective. They make so many of the debates that preoccupy us seem small.” He adds: “The politics of the 2016 election have been for the most part petty, bitter and divisive. These attacks should help dispel the fascination with the assorted celebrities, ideologues and demagogues masquerading as serious presidential candidates. Experience matters when the 3am call comes....”

At the same time, the attacks underscore a growing concern in the campaign over national security, an issue largely owned by Republicans. In a Gallup poll from earlier this year, 55 percent said Republicans are better capable of protecting US interests compared to 32 percent who said the same for Democrats. That’s the biggest such gap in the history of the poll, which began in 2002, Gallup said, and comes after Democrats, in 2007, earned the most national security trust given the poor handing of the Iraq War by President George W. Bush, a Republican.

Among Democrats, Hillary Clinton has emerged as the most hawkish of the three remaining candidates. Clinton, the former Secretary of State, has joined Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, in refusing to call for a larger ground war in the Middle East. On the other hand, Clinton alone has advocated for a more robust approach against ISIS. That could, of course, change at Saturday night's debate.

For Republicans, the link between the Paris attacks and ISIS fit concerns about the scope of the threat from the would-be Islamic caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

“The hawks are back in town since the rise of ISIS,” Domenico Montanaro writes for National Public Radio. “National security this year, unlike in 2011 and 2012, ranks as a top issue for Republican primary voters. And the candidates are talking about foreign policy specifics now, even as developments in Paris continue to emerge.”

Ben Carson, for one, blamed Obama’s leadership for what he called the lack of a coherent vision to fight ISIS with the full resources of the US military. “I think America’s involvement should be trying to eliminate them, completely destroy them,” he said.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said the Paris attacks prove that Obama’s focus on air strikes isn’t enough to contain what he called “an unmistakable escalation of ISIS’ ambitions.” 

Calling for defensive policies such as preventing ISIS militants posing as Syrian refugees from entering the US, Senator Cruz also called for a more offensive-minded US policy, ensuring that militants understand that they face “the undying enmity of America.” The message, said Cruz, needs to be that anyone who signs up to fight against the West is “signing [their] own death warrant.”

As candidates approach a US election, the Paris attacks could be a game-changer.

“To the extent that the United States has viewed [ISIS} as a regional problem that can be contained, the debate will now be transformed,” write Peter Baker and Eric Schmitt, in The New York Times.

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